One thing that always comes up when Techie Boyfriend talks about his work as a code toad/interaction designer is the 80/20 rule: 80% of the features take up only 20% of your total programming time, the other 80% of which is spent fixing bugs you never even expected to have.
This is phenomenon is called the Pareto principle, after an Italian economist who noticed that most of the peas in his garden (80%) were produced by only a handful of super-productive pea pods, while the majority of the pea pods lounged around in the sun growing the other twenty percent of the peas.
INTERN has a friend, let’s call him Egbert, who recently wrote a query letter for his novel. Egbert embarked on the query-writing project with joy and enthusiasm and promptly churned out several decent drafts. Writing these pretty-good drafts took him about two hours.
Soon after Egbert had written these queries, however, he began to fret. He really ought to get some feedback on them before proceeding any further. So he signed up for AbsoluteWrite and AgentQuery and SheWrites and the Nathan Bransford forums and a few other places for good measure. He spent several hours critiquing other peoples’ queries so he wouldn’t look like a critique-mooch, then posted his own for review.
Within a few hours, comments started flowing in. Egbert’s query was pretty good, except for the word “locomotion” which many commenters thought contained too many o’s. Two commenters thought Egbert’s query would certainly lead to requests; one mean-sounding commenter said that after reading this train-wreck of a query, she was dubiuos [sic] that Egbert’s writing career was going anywhere at all.
Egbert fretted over these comments and fretted some more. He stayed up late at night writing query after brand-new query in a desperate attempt to please every single person who had commented. He scoured the web for examples of successful query letters, reading just about every article that had ever been written about the art. Every ten minutes or so he checked all the forums he’d signed up for to see if there were any new comments.
This went on for several days, by the end of which Egbert’s eyes were listless and vacant in their orbital cavities and he had STILL not written the Query to Please All Query Experts.
Still he sat at his laptop and fretted, his forum-checking growing more and more compulsive, until he was no longer a writer but a soul-dead zombie, and the queries coming out of him read more like suicide notes than anything else.
Sometimes you write out of love and sometimes you write out of fear. First drafts, poems, and text messages to your significant other tend to fall effortlessly into the first category. Revisions sometimes drift towards the second, depending on the harshness of your inner critic, but can usually be pulled back.
Query letters, on the other hand, are notorious for ending up in the Fear category, even if they didn’t start out there. By fear, INTERN does mean mortal terror but also fear in the Buddhist sense—aversion to sucking, aversion to having this big stinking lump of a manuscript sitting on your desk for any longer than it needs to.
Egbert has good reason to be intimidated—after all, a lot of the query advice out there says you all but need a PhD in query-writing to do it right. Yes, it’s important to do your research and read QueryShark and get feedback from other writers. But when you’re lashing yourself onwards like an abused sled-dog, your query’s going to smell like Fear.
In Egbert’s case, writing a query was almost a ridiculously perfect illustration of Pareto’s principle. He wrote most of the sentences that ended up in his final query in a handful of inspired minutes. The remaining hours of fretting, forum-checking, and self-flagellation were largely (if not entirely) wasted.
Love and Fear are two very different places to write from. And as plenty of writers will tell you, five minutes in the former is worth a hundred hours in the latter.
In INTERN’s experience, the best thing to do when you find yourself in the fear-zone is to put your boots on and muck around outside until you realize that nobody else in the world except you has their brain in knots over whether or not you write the Query to End All Queries this afternoon. Trust the good 20% to keep you in peas for the summer and screw all the rest. You’re not a sled-dog. You’re a writer.